Character Death

When a character dies, it can be a real buzzkill in a lot of games. Some games make this not so—in Fiasco, you can continue to exert influence over the story, in the name of a dead character, just as easily as a live one. In Dogs in the Vineyard, you don’t die unless you’ve had a dramatic death scene, and figured that the conflict was worth staking your life on. But in many other games? Death can happen all too easily, once anything comes to blows.

Austin’s recent post has gotten me thinking about this in more detail. The idea that a failure undercuts belief in a character is tied to the well-established point (first enumerated, as far as I know, in Spirit of the Century) that failure should be interesting. The clincher was watching an episode of the show Leverage (can you tell I’m obsessed?) in which Hardison was in a car rigged with explosives. He couldn’t leave—that would trigger the bomb—and he couldn’t stay—it was on a timer. There seemed to be no way that failure could be interesting. Hardison was rushing up towards a brick wall. His death would have no real meaning, either. I turned to Austin and said, “This is a case where failure is uninteresting.”

Yet, had that episode been a game, the GM could hardly have not called for a roll of some sort—”There’s a bomb in the car, but you disarm it” would be a total let-down. What’s a poor GM to do?

One answer is to avoid such situations. This is probably too limiting. Another is to fudge results. This is indicative of a somehow broken system. Finally, one can reinterpret failure, change what the stakes are. Sure, the situation may be a car bomb, but is the character’s life at stake? This cuts the tension of the situation.

Ultimately, I’m not sure how to deal with this. Any suggestions? Obviously it’ll vary a lot depending on the point of the game you’re making, but general tactics?

12 responses to “Character Death”

  1. Perhaps I’m misinterpreting your point, but I don’t think there’s any reason why changing the stakes has to cut the tension of the situation. Suppose it’s not the *character’s* life at risk, but that of their sweetheart / sibling / parent / other intimate relation. The tension is still huge (potentially even huger), but the failure case is *definitely* interesting – it has massive potential for furthering the story and/or actions of that character.

    To my mind, death as a consequence of failure isn’t all that interesting (exactly as you point out), and so I’d strive to avoid this unless the player was particularly keen on getting their character killed.

    That said, you could perhaps make death-as-failure interesting by making it have a knock-on effect on something else that carries more narrative weight – e.g. the story of the rest of the group, or the backstory of the player’s *new* character.

    1. That’s a perfect example of a different situation that would, in fact, be narratively interesting; but I’m trying to draw a distinction between situation and stakes. I’m not sure I made that distinction clearly, so thanks for putting your finger on it.

      I guess what I’m talking about is more the “Will our intrepid hero survive? Tune in next week to find out!”—with emphasis on “our hero”, where you know they’ll survive, but there’s still somehow interest in it. Actually, this gives me a framework for thinking about where the interest might lie, if it’s not in a life at stake. I’ll have to think about it more to have an answer, but at least this gives me a place to start.

      (To touch on a different aspect of this point, death as a consequence of failure can be interesting, but only when it’s a culmination, I think. When it’s the final showdown, or something of that ilk. I’ve mentioned my friend Griffin before, and I suspect that his blog about death might spark some more thoughts about why this is.

      There are some games that try to allow or even encourage death and its effects as a central theme, of course: I mentioned Fiasco, which allows it passively, but Matt McFarland’s Curse the Darkness (which he’s still playtesting) seems largely focused on playing through death’s aftermath.)

  2. One other option is to bank the trouble for later. I know of no game that currently supports this idea, but if you have a strong metagame currency, the player could potentially “buy out” of the inescapably bad situation by giving the GM more currency for making trouble later.

    The Leverage example is also an interesting one because there’s a bit of authorial sleight of hand going on there. The purpose of that scene is _not_ to threaten Hardison, it’s to introduce the car bomb. However, by using the trappings of a threat, it makes it a little bit easier for the audience to overlook the gun being put on the mantlepiece, so to speak, and even if they don’t overlook it, it’s a more interesting means of introduction then having them find it without apparent risk.

    Of course, in game terms, it would be a reversal. GM spends some points and slaps down “Car Bomb, d10” and that looks scary, but the reality is it’s a d10 + d6 roll, so any tension is quickly resolved, but in doing so cleverly, that “Bomb d10” is still in play, which means the players might be able to take advantage of it.

    Not that I, as a GM, would EVER introduce complications that might be cleverly turned back against me. Nope, never. Must have just been an oversight. That’s the ticket.

    -Rob D.

    1. Banking the trouble for later is a great idea; I’ll have to play with that. But what if the player doesn’t have resources to buy out the situation? You’re still left with a situation that’s untenable to introduce. Of course, if you play things right, they’ll only not have resources to buy it out by the end, when it’s potentially dramatically appropriate to maybe die.

      Your analysis of the Leverage example is also good, both in terms of what the show is doing and what the game would do. But consider what would happen if they somehow fail that roll? d10+d6 vs. whatever the players have is very unlikely to fail, but still could. It’s up to the GM to come up with an interesting way for it to go wrong, without quite carrying through on the threat of the bomb. You need to make sure that it is, as you say, not about threatening Hardison, but somehow still has the excitement it would have if it were.

      So, another option that occurred to me after thinking about Blackrat’s comment is that part of the interest in “Will our intrepid hero survive? Tune in next week to find out!” is not will they, but how will they survive. Not even at what cost. Just through what cleverness. I’m not sure how to gamify that, but your suggestion of banking the trouble is a nice one. I suppose one major challenge in gamifying that is to find a way to keep people from indefinitely banking trouble, and thus undercutting the threat.

      1. That is, in fact, absolutely the big challenge to it.

      2. Not to derail the excellent conversation, but more as an aside: That particular situation strikes me as not “will the hero survive”, but “will the car survive”. We know, intellectually, that the bomb isn’t going to kill Hardison, but there’re a lot of bad things that can happen as a result. He might be injured and out of the story for a bit, or the car could simply be exploded, and attract the attention of the bad guys. In this case failure is a “you succeed, but” rather than a “you fail, and”.

      3. Regarding the player “having the resources”–do you mean:
        a) having something narratively plausible that would allow them to survive
        b) having the ‘points’ required to buy themselves out of it

        “a” doesn’t make any sense to me, as you can always intervene as the DM (though admittedly over-stretching suspense of disbelief to some degree or other, depending on the situation and your proposed solution).

        “b” presents the interesting idea of debt.
        As you say, Kit, “Of course, if you play things right, they’ll only not have resources to buy it out by the end, when it’s potentially dramatically appropriate to maybe die.”
        At that point, it’s going to be a lot easier to swallow, for a number of reasons.
        The only caveat I would offer there is that games can really fall apart when you get a laundry list of things that need to happen in the future–you almost lose interest in playing the game because “the future” has become so cumbersome. However, perhaps if you just keep it as abstract ‘debt’ rather than outlining specifically what needs to happen in the future, that might suit you just fine.

        1. Yeah, I mean (b).

          Your point about knowing the future is interesting. I think that you’re right, in my experience, though the line may be subtler than it seems—look at Fiasco, where each scene builds towards the general shape of the future, though, crucially, not the specifics.

  3. I think the IADGL or DitV models are good ones to follow. Death should only occur when: a) the player intentionally risks the character’s life, or b) the story has reached a culmination–a point where death is narratively appropriate. I think this is a subcase of the failure problem John is talking about here:

    The question here is: how can we prevent a particular consequence of a particular class of failure? (ie death).

    That said, there are classes of game where death’s ubiquity is not only appropriate, but also necessary, integral to the gritty uncaring nature of the in-game universe. I’m thinking D&D primarily. It’s a combat game, and if you get into fights with people swinging around pointy metal things and throwing lighting bolts, well, random ignonimous death is an inevitable, and appropriate consequence. It’s a game that is very much about not being awesome. Awesome in comparison to the average man, sure. But awesome compared to random monsters? Awesome compared to death? Never. At least not in older versions of D&D, and certainly not early in the game. Things rapidly get out of control, and part of the joy of being awesome in D&D is looking back at all the rat ravaging and kobold killing you did early on and marveling that you made it. It’s not a game about making a coherent story, if you die at an inopportune, dramatically inappropriate time, well sometimes the dice don’t fall your way. It’s Gamist with a capital G. The games we are talking about, the games you guys are trying to design here, are emphatically not.

    1. That’s a great description of what D&D is. But you left out an important ingredient: revolving-door afterlife. Austin recently described D&D as a monorail—you go in to a fight, you come out. Any failure as such is equivalent to falling off the monorail, and then you get put back on by a Raise Dead. Like in a lot of CRPGs, there’s little room for choice—there may be choice about how you do the fight, but no choice about whether or not you win. Of course, being a TRPG, people can change this, but I’ve yet to see any D&D crunch that encourages or supports that; anything outside the fight is also largely outside the system.

      Yet. The idea of a revolving-door afterlife can be made first-class, and not just a patch on a bad failure system. My go-to example for this is my favorite old World of Darkness game, Mummy: the Resurrection. It’s important that death is random and haphazard, and it’s important that you, mostly unique among things in the world, can just keep coming back from it. The randomness and ease of death actually feeds the theme. Unity of Effect, all over again.

      1. I didn’t realize how cheap and easy Raise Dead was in D&D. Though that’s something that can be changed to taste–I’m certainly not a fan of its ubiquity.

        Adding non-fight crunch to D&D would sort of make it a completely different game. Its wargaming roots sort of necessitates the lack of the sort of metagaming tool you describe.

        Good points though! I especially like the use of a revolving door afterlife as an intentional, thematic game mechanics. I may have to check out Mummy.

        I wanted to add some points on being awesome. I described level 1 adventurers in D&D as rather low on the awesome scale, but there’s definitely room to rethink that. In universe even a first level adventurer is very powerful, at least compared to the common man. It’s all relative:

        Also note the relative magic scarcity of your setting has a lot to do with how awesome a character feels. Exalted is not D&D is not DitV (hehe).

        1. Mummy suffers under the heavy yoke of the old World of Darkness dice system, alas. But do check it out.

          “It’s all relative” cuts both ways, though, and depends on what people look at more. In D&D, you never actually deal with the “common man” as a threat or opposition—at least in my experience. You effectively don’t live in that world. I think when you make a game that starts people above the “common man” and points them upwards, they’re going to feel that the bottom is, well, the bottom, not above anything.

          Not sure this was coherent. Apologies.